Defend Truth


Murder of six women in Joburg exposes safety hazards for sex workers in SA

Murder of six women in Joburg exposes safety hazards for sex workers in SA
Illustrative image: Criminalisation has undermined sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposed them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers. (Photo:

Three days after six decomposed bodies were found in downtown Joburg, women were back at work, driven by the need to put food on the table despite fears for their safety on the streets. 

“We were forever laughing but all she wanted was a better life for her family,” recalled Nokuthula Ndlovu, a friend of the woman whose decomposed body was found in the back of a van in the city CBD this week.

Five other decomposed bodies, with hands and feet bound, were found on Sunday 9 October in an unused section of a business premises on Stevenson Street, near the Faraday taxi rank.

The woman in the van, whose body has not yet been identified by her family, was reported missing two weeks ago by friends when she did not return to her flat. She was last seen on Anderson Street with a young man who often paid for sex, Ndlovu said.

All the women are believed to have been sex workers, most of them foreign nationals. The murders have put the precarious and often dangerous lives of sex workers in the spotlight.

Study finds extreme levels of violence against sex workers

A national survey found that women sex workers in South Africa are exposed to extremely high levels of violence – with  71% of female sex workers saying they had been exposed to physical violence and 58% saying they had been raped, according to a Groundup report republished in Daily Maverick. The study also found that sex workers were extremely vulnerable to rape by clients, men they encountered in the community, as well as their intimate partners

Following the discovery of the corpses in Joburg last week, most of the neighbourhood sex workers stayed off the streets for three days, but have since returned, despite there being no new protection measures. Most say they returned to ply their trade because they have to feed families.

A building used by a panel beating business where the gruesome discovery of six bodies believed to be of sex workers were found in Central Johannesburg on October 9th, 2022. (Photo: Meseret Argaw)

The bodies were at an advanced stage of decomposition, according to Gauteng police spokesperson Colonel Brenda Muridili.

On Wednesday last week, the stench of death lingered as a police probe into the circumstances surrounding their deaths was under way.

Other sex workers, believed to have been assaulted in the past by the 20-year-old man who has been charged with one count of premeditated murder, spoke to investigating officers at Johannesburg Central police station. If the women opted to open cases, the suspect was likely to face more charges, said an officer. The police are yet to establish a motive for the murders.


A survivor tells her story

The sex workers said they once again feared for their lives.

Ndlovu, a mother of two originally from Zimbabwe, said she was lucky to be alive. She detailed how, a few months ago, a man asked for her services and promised to pay an additional R100.

“He was a sweet client, quite flattering,” she said. As they drove towards a BnB in Rosettenville, 6km away, Ndlovu said the man made an abrupt turn and drove back to town, three streets from where she was usually located, saying he needed to fetch money.

“When we got to Stevenson Street, he started driving slowly, looking around. I suspected something was wrong and asked to get off and he refused.”

The man parked at the gate of the building in which the bodies were later discovered, she said. They physically fought, but “I was lucky to escape unharmed”, she said.

That happened in June, at about 6pm.

The part of the building used by a panel beating business where the gruesome discovery of six bodies believed to be of sex workers were found in Central Johannesburg on October 9th, 2022. (Photo: Meseret Argaw)

Another sex worker, Thandi Moyo*, said the suspect would often come by. He paid generously. “But what we noticed is that he only wanted foreign nationals. He would turn back South Africans.”

Moyo said women were caught between a rock and a hard place, to put food on the table they had to risk their lives on the streets.

Both the women interviewed expressed their frustration at South African legislation, which they said had little or no regard for sex workers.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

The crime scene

The building in which the bodies were found accommodates various businesses, including a panel-beating warehouse. It was previously occupied by a company that made safety boots, said a caretaker.

The section in which the bodies were found was currently not in use, revealed a security guard. Only the owner of the building, the caretaker and the suspect had access to it.

Near the building, a few cars pass by and eight men run an informal car wash.

The manager of a neighbouring building, who identified himself as Gabriel, told Daily Maverick he started to notice a strong stench a week before the discovery, but did not pay too much attention to it. “This is Joburg CBD; it is not very clean… At first, the smell bothered me, but I quickly dismissed it as it is normal to have stenches,” he said.

Gabriel said he was shocked at the discovery of bodies. “I never suspected anything. No one did. People come into the building in the morning and they knock off in the evening.”


Identity parade not yet held

On Tuesday, the 20-year-old man arrested in connection with the discovery of one body appeared at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, on one count of premeditated murder. Magistrate Betty Khumalo ordered that he not be named or filmed, as an identity parade was yet to take place.

National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane said the grim discovery was made by a caretaker of the building over the weekend.

“The caretaker was busy washing a car when he noticed a foul smell coming out of an unused building within the premises. Upon investigating, he found a woman’s body and called the owner of the premises. After the discovery was reported to Johannesburg Central police station, officers arrived and found a further five female bodies,” said Mjonondwane.

The man has not been officially linked to the other murders, but Mjonondwane said the prosecuting authority had given instructions for further investigations to be carried out.

The NPA believes it has a strong case against the man, who is expected to make a formal bail application on 18 October.


What the staff saw

A security guard on duty when the bodies were discovered said he saw the man enter the building on Saturday evening, but did not make much of it as he was frequently there.

Unlike everybody else who worked in the building, the suspect is said to have preferred to use the entrance near where the bodies were found. The guard said he had seen him walk into the building with at least two  women, on different occasions.

Sex workers organisation Sisonke expressed outrage and welcomed the arrest. Spokesperson Katlego Rasebitse was concerned about a number of local sex workers who had not been accounted for.  “As far as we know, 13 women are missing. Of those, only six were found.”

The missing women are said to have left their rooms, apparently to go to work, had not taken away their belongings and had not been contactable on their cellphones.

Rasebitse said the organisation had taken it upon itself, alongside the sex workers, to identify the deceased. They could only identify four of the women. “It was quite bad, so much that the forensic pathologists described the two bodies as rotten; they would have to conduct DNA or mouth swabs in order to identify them.”


Decriminalising sex work

Sex workers and Sisonke blamed the country’s sex work legislation for the killings, which highlighted the slow pace of decriminalisation.

Sisonke said it believed there would be fewer such incidents if sex work was decriminalised. “The biggest problem is that, across the country, there is no political posture, we always hear politicians speak about resolutions around decriminalisation of sex work during their campaigns to be elected, but they do not have a clear time frame of when and how.”

Through its gender structure, Cosatu in Gauteng echoed these sentiments.

“The delayed implementation of decriminalisation of sex work in the country, as adopted at the 13th Cosatu National Congress of 2018, tends to give leeway to perpetrators raping, dehumanising and killing their victims,” said provincial gender chairperson Nomalanga Mdluli.

“This incident further reiterates the dangers sex workers face on a daily basis. It is public knowledge that the police force is failing dismally and their lack of protection and visibility in such dangerous working conditions contributes to these horrendous acts in our society.” DM

* Not her real name

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.